Modern Days: All Work & All Play


Being an occasional diary entry reporting something I’ve done or seen which may result in the inspiration to write.

I needed to get out.

It had not stopped raining – no, not raining, sifting – in London for a week. Sifting is what London in February does best, a blackening soaking mist of arrosage that anywhere else would be reserved for spraying on bougainvillea after sunset. In London we’re getting it all day, every day, from a cloudbase so dense that it doesn’t actually grow light. This is the penalty for living in a Northern country, a punishment for being industrious. Step outside and you return feeling like you were just fished out of the canal.

Thursday. I was prowling in the flat, on a deadline and unable to think clearly, so I went to Barcelona to clear my brain and start afresh. Catholic countries start late. You don’t feel guilty about eating breakfast at ten. You may also still be working at 2:00AM.

I decide to buy some fish. I’ll have some steamed hake and write quietly through the day until midnight. The first sign of trouble appears when I notice that the fish-lady and her staff are dressed as penguins.



Oh, and one is a sort of viking. Okay, I think, it’s a promotion. When you work in London, if anyone does something odd you assume they’re selling something. But on the way back I pass a family having coffee.


Now I’m thinking okay, the circus is in town. The Circus Of Horrors usually camps near the port every winter. I head home to start writing. It’s quiet in BCN, a big city with just an eighth of the population of London. I open my laptop when I hear hooves on cobbles and go to the window. Horses are passing in pairs, a great many, pulling Victorian traps which hold – Victorians.

The odd noises increase so I seal the windows and return to write until it’s dusk. But I need green peppers for dinner, so I go out and bump into a family of skittles and a bowling ball. I look around and realise that every little girl in the entire city is dressed as a princess. What is it with the princess outfits? Did Germaine Greer waste her entire life complaining about gender-typing in vain? Then the drumming starts. In Southern climes, you’re never far from a drum.


Call me slow. I used to have trouble following ‘Columbo’, so how I became a crime writer is a mystery to me. I think to myself, ‘This is weird, it’s not like it’s Rio or anything…’ And the penny drops. Carnem Levare. Carnival. Mardi Gras. I’ve been to New Orleans at Mardi Gras a few times but I didn’t expect it in cash-strapped Spain. Apart from anything else, I don’t see how there’s room in the Catholic calendar for any more dressing up and setting fire to things.

But carnival it is, of course. Outside the vegetable store a troupe of acrobats is yelling and throwing each other upside down. I walk around the corner into my silent, empty square to find everyone dancing…


If you want a happy life, live in a country that doesn’t want to be a world power. Everything stops at the slightest provocation for pleasure. The lady in the bread shop may decide not to serve anyone because she’s busy dressing as a giant rabbit. Your favourite cafe doesn’t open because the sun is out, it’s a Tuesday or they just. Don’t. Feel. Like. It.

Part of me thinks, ‘How is anything achieved? How does anyone get successful?’ The other part thinks, ‘What’s the point in being driven to succeed if you miss your life passing?’ It isn’t doing much for the Germans – they work like dogs and end up supporting Greece. It’s not doing much for the happiness of workaholic Londoners either. Toronto is regularly cited as one of the happiest places on earth, but you never hear anything about Canada in the press unless it’s Justin Bieber.

That’s the answer. Spend some time in a place that isn’t in the news. There’s an old maxim – When your life exceeds your dreams, keep your mouth shut’ – you don’t hear a peep out of New Zealand, do you?

Something else puzzles me. There was no warning that this would happen, no big announcement. No Health & Safety barriers, no monetising of the event, just celebration. It’s the way everything is treated here; births, deaths, fiestas just happen because this is what life is expected to provide. Then I think that maybe the UK is the odd one for over-analyzing every last element of life, so that everything must be forecast, predicted, studied and provided with a post-mortem in which it is forensically mapped, parsed, compared and rated. Is this a national symptom, the inability to live without comment? Am I doing it now, sharing the thought?

When you work very hard, your personal time becomes overly precious and must be perfect. One of the worst examples I can think of is the Wedding Fair, designed not to deliver your perfect day but a more perfect day than anyone else’s.

Picking pits of orange ticker-tape out of my hair, I head home. There are people who think life is but a dream, and people who don’t but really should. People in London and Frankfurt might want to pay special attention to that. We’ll find ourselves giving up accountancy for tightrope walking before we know it.


11 comments on “Modern Days: All Work & All Play”

  1. J. Folgard says:

    Brilliant post, admin. Can’t say exactly why but I loved reading this -you articulate perfectly how so many people I guess (including me) think about how we live (and comment) many of today’s festive events. Cheers!

  2. Vivienne says:

    Is this a London problem again? So much that happens is not really any longer for locals, tourists have to be taken into account and, instant communication in place, all the powers that be get involved and spoil the spontaineity. Chinese New Year celebrations were once quite low key, now it’s an ‘event’ in Trafalgar Square, but not so much fun. The people in Barcelona seem to be participants and not audience – maybe that’s what we’re missing.

  3. John says:

    Plus it must be great to be in a place that celebrates Mardi Gras an entire day early. Do they do it all again tomorrow? As for me I’m grumbling because I needed to get to the library today but the entire system is closed because of the bogus President’s Day “holiday” — Washington & Lincoln’s birthdays clumped into one day and a day off for those lucky enough to work for a bank, the post office or the city. The rest of us still have go to work. Especially retail workers who have to deal with yet another reason to have a sale for those addicted to shopping. I’d much rather see businesses staying open for Mardi Gras and employees dressed as penguins and throwing confetti and most likely being deliriously silly and alive.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    It’s lunar new year starting this week. It’s actually about 8 days long with different responsibilities for each day. Most non-Asians just do the parade and buy the pastries or let off firecrackers (in Chinatown only where it’s still illegal but allowed) I imagine the parade is next Sunday ’cause I don’t think it was yesterday. Do you realise how many New Years there are? The Christian church starts it with the 4th Sunday before Christmas, then there’s the solar new year (Jan 1st) Gregorian new year Jan 6th, lunar new year in Feb, Zoroastrian new year at the equinox – March 21/22. You could celebrate your way through most of winter.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Most of those festivals involve candles, fires, or light or some kind. How can you tell they were developed mostly in the northern hemisphere?

  6. Vivienne says:

    Have my Chinese firecrackers and will let them off wherever I am!

  7. admin says:

    John, I didn’t realise Presidents’ Day wasn’t for everyone. That’s a bit of a gyp.
    Helen, my diary tells me about the Zoroastrian year for some unearthly reason.

  8. Alan says:

    Word of the day: ‘arrosage’

  9. Chandon says:

    This was a very well articulated and timely post. Maybe people should simply relax more and concentrate on the pleasures of living in the present, rather than always analysing the past and trying to forecast the future.

  10. button says:

    I suspect Mardi Gras took you by surprise this time because you missed the Pancake Protocol.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    The pancakes are to use up the fats, especially butter, before Lent, but do they do pancakes on the Continent in this context?
    Arrosage I gather is a word for watering gardens and crops – sprinkling?

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